On the sweeping plains at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, a group of female wildlife rangers is making history by defying patriarchal norms that have been passed down for centuries, patrolling against poachers instead of doing household chores.
The eight ethnic Maasai women known as “Team Lioness” are part of 76 community-based rangers guarding leopards, elephants, giraffe and other wildlife in the 147,000-hectare (363,000-acre) area surrounding Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
Team Lioness members say they overcame community resistance to women working outside the home and hope their precedent-setting example will help shift mindsets.
“First, the community believed I will not make it because they believe I am weak. Our work in the community was to give birth and do chores,” said 24-year-old Purity Amleset during a recent foot patrol.
Dozens of elephants grazed behind her in swampland with Africa’s tallest peak, snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro, in the distance. The animals roam freely between the Maasai-owned protected area outside the park and the park itself.
“They thought that this is only meant for men so they have been discouraging us … but we told them, ‘No, we will do it and we will make it,’” Amleset said.
The Maasai, who inhabit northern Tanzania and central and southern Kenya, are recognized in much of the world with their red wraps and hair slathered in red ochre. While their warriors no longer have to kill a lion to be considered a man, many other traditions are still in place.
Despite decades of British colonization in the past and growing inclusion in modern economies, the Maasai maintain the practices of pastoralism, child marriages and female genital mutilation.
Amleset said she was lucky that her parents took her to school.
“I pity some of the girls from the same community that I came from, they were not taken to school. They were forced to get married while they are too young,” she said. “At 13 to 15 years of age, they were forced to be mothers while they are not supposed to be mothers at that time.”
Patrick Papatiti, the head of the community rangers for the Olgulului-Ololarashi group ranch surrounding the national park, said the idea for an all-female ranger group gained ground around two years ago when the ranch, owned by the Maasai community, started working with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
When the idea was floated to the ranch’s leadership “they were a little hesitant, not because they didn’t like it but because they believed the society will not accept it,” Papatiti said.